Choosing your startup location and office space is one of the most important decisions that will influence the success of your organization. This section provides practical advice on how to choose a startup location, and points to consider when securing an office space.
Selecting your office location
Your decision on where to locate your startup should be determined by the type of service you plan to provide, and where you can maximize your impact. If your RRO is to focus on legal services and community legal empowerment, you may decide to locate a place that enables you to provide the most direct access to your clients. In this case, consider a location that is safe and accessible to refugees:
- People are unlikely to travel far from their homes, particularly if they have few resources, so you should map where refugees live in your city or town and search for a property accordingly. In urban areas where refugees are scattered across the city, finding a place that is accessible by public transportation is preferable.
- Many zones housing marginalized populations tend to be less safe than the more affluent areas of a city or town. The need to be accessible to refugee populations should be balanced with the safety record of the area, keeping in mind that employees and volunteers – particularly in the start-up stages – may need to bring their own laptops to and from work if the office cannot provide computers.
- If operating in an environment where refugees are likely to be detained or questioned by the police, also consider a place that is not so visible – but again balance this with all other factors, including the need to ensure the security and safety of staff.
- Consider the likelihood that your staffing will increase in the next year or two and plan for an office space that can accommodate that. It will be difficult, expensive and likely cause confusion to clients if you have to move shortly after setting up.
Alternatively, if your RRO was to focus on policy advocacy in its initial strategy, consider locating near the policymakers where your lobbying activities can take place. Similarly, if strategic litigation was your main focus, consider locating your office near the courts for easy access.
Planning your office space
The process of finding and securing office space raises a variety of concerns that should be taken into account. There are certain risks associated with setting up your office space, and there are steps that you can take to mitigate risks – from insurance to circumspect planning. Indeed your organization may be obliged to take out insurance to occupy office space, or even to function at all.
Privacy and confidentiality are key values in delivering legal services to refugees. It is important to have enough space to be able to interview and work with refugees and asylum seekers in separate rooms. This facilitates them to speak freely without the fear of being overheard, including by other clients. You should have the capacity to store physical filing systems securely, and the office space should itself be highly secured against break-ins given the sensitive information it will contain.
Since funds may be scarce in the early days of your organization, an interim solution may be to hire rooms on the premises of another NGO or law firm, though it should be stressed that this is not an ideal situation for reasons of privacy and confidentiality above all.
Over-securitization, however, goes against the ethos that refugees and their service providers are equals. Think twice about stationing guards at the door of your premises, or demanding ID before permitting entry — this does not contribute to a welcoming environment, and may be reminiscent of other institutions that refugees know not to be friendly. Asylum Access offices work on an intercom system, by which refugees announce themselves and are buzzed in. Some have commented that little differences such as these contribute to an atmosphere of respect, putting those who have come to tell difficult stories more at ease.